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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

June 3, 2008 at 9:34 AM

Microsoft’s Kevin Johnson: Our browser better than Firefox, Google wars, etc.

How can Microsoft catch Google in search?

By taking advantage of its underdog status to try new things and change the search experience, Platforms & Services President Kevin Johnson said during an interview/keynote with search guru Danny Sullivan at the Search Marketing Expo conference in Seattle today.

One way that Microsoft’s going to differentiate itself is by emphasizing its Live search as a tool for commercial transactions, highlighting categories such as travel and shopping. That’s a smaller share of overall search — about 30 percent — but it’s where 80 percent of the ad spending occurs.

“If you look at the last three to five years, the user experience hasn’t changed. I think there’s a new paradigm users will want and embrace,” he said.

Microsoft’s approach is to first innovate and improve search, then distribute its products via deals like preloading its search tools on PCs. It announced such, a deal with Hewlett-Packard on Monday. The third element of the strategy is marketing its products.

(Microsoft may also get a nudge if it toes the line on privacy practices advocated by watchdog groups such as EPIC, which today slammed Google for not prominently posting its privacy policy on its home page.)

Sullivan noted that Microsoft’s marketing challenge includes its confusing search brand. Asked why it doesn’t change the brand back to MSN or try something other than Live, Johnson said he realizes there is a problem but changes weren’t be made while the Yahoo merger was still an option.

Now that the acquisition isn’t happening, “our marketing teams are liberated to go solve that brand problem,” he said.

“I have knowledge that we’ve got to get that fixed and I’ve given the marketing team the opportunity to go do what they need to do on that,” he added.

Sullivan noted that while Microsoft makes it easy for consumers to change the default search engine in its Explorer browser (owing to antitrust decrees.) Google is the default on Firefox. He couldn’t get Johnson to say anything too nasty about the arrangement, though. Instead Johnson talked about how Microsoft’s providing choice, saying “I think our browser is a better browser.”

“We think all browsers should give users the option to choose search defaults and one of those options should be our Live Search. I think that’s a reasonable thing that consumers and you and everyone in this room should be asking.”

More from the Q&A:

DS: Why did you stop scanning and posting book content, something you were talking up as recently as September?

Publishers are doing it themselves, and Microsoft will still index them and make that content searchable, he said. “The fact is we think the industry’s marturing … that’s the thing all publishers will be doing.”

DS: Should you divest the search marketing business of aQuantive?

Firsthand feedback helps us make the platform better. Have signed up more than 100 publishers since Microsoftacquired aQuantive, including Facebook, Viacom, Digg, Wall Street Journal.

Someone from the audience asked how to overcome his perception that “when I think of search I think of Microsoft as the man and Google as the way to get at the man?”

Sullivan did a quick survey of the audience, which apparently thought that in search, Google is actually the man. Consumers may feel otherwise and associate Microsoft’s search with its desktop dominance, he said.

Johnson’s response was to replay the “choice” tape:

“In any industry, choice is good. We are here to provide choice – choice to the consumer, choice to the publisher, choice to the advertiser. We’re going to do that by innovating and delivering value to the market.”

But he acknowledged that most consumers are still choosing the other guy:

“Today we’re flopping around at 9 or 10 percent market share and we’ve got to grow that.”

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